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For at least a decade, a tumble-down vacant lot has rotted near the eastern end of Temple Bar, just off Parliament Street, past the Turk’s Head.
It’s the one that had the black and yellow “Somebody’s Child” mural, and the “Disband the Artane Band” sign.
“It’s always just been a derelict site full of rubbish and weeds and anti-social behaviour,” said Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop on nearby Cow’s Lane.
“For as long as we’ve been here, which is 13 years now and I know it was certainly vacant for a good while before that,” Johnston said over the phone on Tuesday.
While the surrounding area has been redeveloped, the buildings between 11 and 14 Exchange Street Lower were demolished 10 years ago, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said.
Last year, though, Dublin City Council bought the vacant site at 13 and 14 Exchange Street Lower, a council spokesperson said.
The council bought it from Ningaloodublinproperties Ltd, according to records from the Property Registration Authority.
Acquiring neighbouring sites at 11 and 12 Exchange Street Lower, and 11 Exchange Street Upper, for “commercial and residential use” is an objective of the council’s Active Land Management Initiative, they said.
It has already attempted to acquire those properties by agreement, they said. “But due to defective title in the properties it is now considering using its compulsory purchase powers.”
Mannix Flynn, an independent councillor, said, “CPOs take years to put together, you know what I mean. As far as I know, it’s still ongoing.”
In 2003, planning permission was granted to build a two-storey oratory building at 13 and 14 Exchange Street Lower, but it was never built, according to a later planner’s report on the site.
In 2017, Ningaloodublinproperties Ltd, the then owners of 13 and 14 Exchange Street Lower, applied for planning permission from Dublin City Council to develop the site.
“We tried several planning applications, which were all bizarrely knocked back,” said Jon Dalton, who is listed as a director and owner of Ningaloodublinproperties Ltd in its 2021 annual return, over email on Tuesday.
The company proposed to build a four-storey building with a cafe or shop on the ground floor, three student-accommodation “units” upstairs and a rooftop terrace.
Frank McDonald, chairperson of Temple Bar Residents Association, said they submitted an objection to the application.
“We lodged an objection to that, needless to say, on the basis that it wasn’t even going to have any facilities at all,” he says. “It was just totally unsuitable for that kind of accommodation.”
The council refused the application in 2018, with a planner’s report finding that “the proposed student accommodation units lack suitable facilities, including adequate storage facilities, and would, therefore, constitute a substandard form of development which would seriously injure the residential amenities of the future occupants”.
The company appealed that decision, but An Bord Pleanála upheld the council’s ruling later that year.
What About Now?
The site is an eyesore, says McDonald, and should be developed for housing, with retail on the ground floor.
“And it should be social housing because that’s an urgent need in the city,” he says.
The council has plans to create a municipal theatre complex on the site, says Flynn, the independent councillor. The site is near Smock Alley Theatre, and the Gaiety School of Acting.
“Dublin City Council would basically, you know, create a municipal theatre at the Smock Alley site, and the Gaiety School of Acting would be incorporated within that complex,” he says. “It would make a great add on to the potential municipal theatre.”
“It’s a very tight corner. And it can only be developed in relation to, as I say, the complex there,” he says. “Of course they would want to basically build on it.”
Says McDonald: “I wouldn’t think it’s big enough for a municipal theatre. It’s not a very large site.”
The site the council now owns at 13 and 14 Exchange Street Lower, is 73 square metres, according to the 2018 An Bord Pleanála inspector’s report. It’s not clear how big the site at 11 and 12 Exchange Street Lower is.
Flynn says the council had also wanted to put up a big screen for advertising and art displays, similar to one in Fitzwilliam Square. “That would animate the area.”
Johnston, the owner of Gutter Bookshop, says that since there are archaeological remains on the site, then this should be used to promote the area.
“I was told of an old merchant house, and so it was a troublesome spot to try to develop because of its archaeological interest,” he says.
“Use that archaeological site to somehow to educate visitors about the area, to make Temple Bar more of a cultural destination, that would be amazing,” he says.
The city archaeologist’s report on the 2017 planning application says there are two sites on the national Record of Monuments and Places within the proposed development. Both are listed as “possible dwelling”.
It also says “a medieval kiln that was discovered during archaeological investigative works in 2014 remains in situ, as do some fragments of upstanding walls”.
Said Johnston: “But obviously we all have wishes and dreams. But to have the site at least clean and tidy and used in some productive way, would be a good start.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 9.09am on 18 May to make it clear the final quotation came from Bob Johnston.]